As Christo Pantev prowled the halls of Toronto's Baycrest Center for Geriatric Care he was struck, over and over, by the vitality of many of the elderly patients who played a musical instrument.
"I saw much more activity in these people than in the others," says Pantev, a neuroscientist at the center's Rotman Research Institute.
He saw a difference even among those who were slipping over the edge into dementia. Memory begins to fade as the patients slide toward that dark abyss, but the last thing that goes — the last bit of memory — he says, is their ability to remember music.
And he thinks he may know why.
Musician and Scientist
He has developed evidence over the years that the study of music may change the way the human brain is wired. And that has kept him on a course that has guided nearly his entire professional career.
He has a few questions he would like to answer, including: Does learning a skill, like playing the violin, physically change the brain and improve cognitive and perceptive skills among children, and maybe even stave off mental illness among the elderly?
Maybe, he reasons, the intense concentration and the long hours of practice that make someone a skilled musician have benefits that far outweigh the rewards of playing a musical instrument.
Those are tall questions, but Pantev has spent the last few years laying the groundwork for research that is just getting underway at the institute. As a child, Pantev spent years studying the violin, and it became his passion.
Even today, he says, "If I work, I have to hear music."
In time, the violin gave way to neuroscience, but it was to return later as a key player in his research.
While working at the University of Muenster's Institute for Experimental Audiology in Germany, Panlev and a colleague began studying people who had lost a limb to see how their brains adapted to their new environment. It was known that persons who had lost a hand sometimes felt pain, or other sensations, in their fingers, even though the hand was no longer there.
The researchers used sensitive equipment that could measure electric activity and magnetic fields in the brain to see which areas were active when the person reported feeling "phantom pain" in the missing limb. The results, published in a 1995 issue of the journal Nature, showed that other parts of the body commandeered the neurons formerly used by the missing limb.
If the lip took over those neurons, for example, simply biting the lip caused the person to feel pain in the phantom limb.
The research showed that the brain adapted to its new environment by rewiring itself, and that led Pantev to his next question. "Can we modify the functional brain organization by training?" he asks.
Playing Violin, Wearing a Helmet
To answer that, the researchers needed a model, something they could test to see if training had a measurable impact on the brain. Pantev knew from his own experience that playing the violin required far more dexterity in the left hand than the right.
"The right hand is much less involved," he says.
Pantev, the violinist, thus supplied Pantev, the neuroscientist, with "the perfect model."
Like the research into phantom pain, the difference between the use of the left hand as opposed to the right gave the researchers something to measure in the brain. Over time, they reasoned, practicing the violin several hours a day should cause a neurological shift in the brain.
The researchers used a helmet-like device with more than 200 sensors to detect magnetic fields in the brain. The non-invasive system allowed them to measure changes in the field in both musicians and non-musicians. Simply touching the fingers of the participants stimulated the brain.
"We found very well pronounced changes," he says. The magnetic field in the section of the brain that analyzes tactile signals from the fingers of the left hand was far stronger among the violinists than it was among non-musicians.
"So music does something to us, and to our brain," he says.
Tracking Child Musicians
Now, Pantev has moved on to another area. The human brain is more "plastic," or malleable, when we are young than when we are old. So Pantev has teamed up with professors Larry E. Roberts and Laurel Trainor of nearby McMaster University to measure the change in children's brains when they first begin studying music.
Aided by a $200,000 grant from the California-based International Foundation for Music Research, the scientists will spend at least two years monitoring children who are enrolled in the Suzuki School of Music in Toronto. The children, aged 4 to 6, will be compared to children of similar background and intelligence who have never studied music.
The non-invasive helmet will allow the researchers to measure changes in the overall magnetic field generated by activity within the brain over the two-year period.
"You can measure the magnetic field distribution over the whole head," he says. "And from this we can calculate the prime function of the change, and the special location of the source."
In other words, is the change the result of greater demands on the left hand than the right among budding violinists, and what is happening inside the brain to facilitate that adaptation to the learning process?
The long range goal of the research, and it is long range indeed, is to figure out if learning — be it music or any other demanding task — can equip the mind to deal better with such things as mental illness. Can learning something force the brain to "increase its resources" by tapping into the neuron pool and redeploying those that are underutilized?
Pantev thinks the answer is probably yes, but he says that's only "intuition" at this point.
"We know we have a lot of work to do," he says.
It may well be that music is quite different from most other learning experiences. No one becomes an accomplished artist overnight. It takes years of hard work, self-discipline, and a high level of concentration to reach the point where the room doesn't empty when the student picks up the violin.
And it may be, if Pantev's "intuition" is right, that a lot more is going on there than simply learning how to make music.
Lee Dye’s column appears weekly on ABCNEWS.com. A former science writer for the Los Angeles Times, he now lives in Juneau, Alaska.